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Madison West High School

Madison West High School students enjoy the fall weather during Wednesday’s lunch period.

Madison West High School is switching to a gender-neutral homecoming court this year, one of only a few in the country to do so and possibly the first in Wisconsin.

The change, initiated by students, is intended to make the school more welcoming to those who feel their genders fall between male and female or who identify as completely different genders or no gender at all.

Instead of 10 boys and 10 girls as in the past, the Oct. 16 homecoming court will consist of the top 20 vote-getters in the senior class, said Principal Beth Thompson.

The two top vote-getters still will be named, but they will not be called “king” or “queen” unless they choose those titles.

Both winners may end up identifying as female or both as male, or some other combination.

Students have suggested titles such “Two Regents” or “Regent Rulers,” both playing off the school’s mascot.

“I think this gets us closer on a whole variety of fronts to making each and every student in our building feel like a valued, recognized member of our community,” Thompson said.

Students came to her last spring with a petition signed by close to 1,000 students and staff members, she said. Madison West is the largest of the district’s four main high schools at about 2,065 students.

The petition said the change would “create a safer and more inclusive environment for all students.”

In documents presented to Thompson, the students said it is “always a good time to start a new tradition” and that West “can be the progressive trailblazer it was meant to be.”

Thompson said she assembled an advisory group of student leaders, which led to “some really deep discussions” on how to move forward.

The intent at this point is for the new process to also be used in selecting the royalty courts for the mid-winter dance and the spring prom, she said.

“This really was a lengthy process we went through, and we’ll evaluate it through this first go-round,” she said. “It’s really an experiment to think more progressively and inclusively.”

Tim Michael, who works with gay-straight alliances across the state through the Madison-based Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools, said he has not heard of any other Wisconsin schools taking this step.

Jenny Betz of the national Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network said her organization does not specifically track this issue but that “this definitely is new.”

In the supporting documents presented to Thompson, students said they’d found at least three colleges and two high schools that had moved to more gender-neutral ways of selecting royalty courts.

One is Mona Shores High School in Michigan, where the titles of “king” and “queen” were dropped after a controversy in which a transgender male student was denied the opportunity to become prom king.

West senior Kingsley-Reine Pissang, president of the student council, said the change has “overwhelming support” among students, though she said there was “some initial backlash.”

“It was along the lines of ‘If we’re not going to do the traditional thing, what are we going to do?’ ” she said.

The skepticism was addressed through educating the student body about the process and the intent, she said. “We want to allow students to be their true selves here,” she said.

West has had students who are transgender and gender-fluid — different gender identities at different times — on royalty courts in the past, and some have felt uncomfortable or devalued at having to declare themselves either male or female, said senior Kate Scholz, a student council member and president of the Student Support Foundation, a grant-awarding organization at the school.

“No one should be forced to do that,” she said. “This is a change that is unlikely to affect a lot of people, but the people it does affect, it affects in a really powerful way.”

On a 2012 survey, 1.5 percent of Dane County high school students self-identified as transgender, or about 250 teenagers out of 17,000.

West junior Arwen Sadler, who identifies as gender-fluid, was among those who worked on the petition.

“Sometimes I identify as a girl, sometimes as a boy,” Sadler said. “For me personally to have this statement from the school is really affirming and validating.”

The voting at West began on Friday, and the top 50 finalists were announced Tuesday.

Thompson declined to venture a guess on the gender breakdown of the finalists, saying she did not want to presume to know their preferred genders.

Pissang said it appeared the gender breakdown was roughly even, give or take a couple.

Students are now voting for the final 20 and the top two.

The change comes as West students mourn the Sept. 28 suicide of Skylar Lee, a junior who was a driving force behind the gender-neutral initiative.

In his obituary, his parents attributed his death to depression.

“He worked so hard on this issue,” said Teri LeSage, a West English teacher. “I think this has the potential to change the city and the state. He’s left quite a legacy.”

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